Newsrack Crackdown in Pittsburgh

City Councilman Proposes Charging a $25 Registration Fee for Every Newsrack in the City.

Pittsburgh became the frontline in the battle of newsracks last month.

On Aug. 27, City Councilman Alan Hertzberg said he would soon introduce a bill that would reign-in who decides where to station Pittsburgh’s newsracks and how much to charge. Hertzberg’s plan included charging a $25 registration for every one of the city’s estimated 3,000 newsracks, levying an annual $10 permit fee for each appliance and allowing Public Works officials to regulate rack placement.

Hertzberg justified the proposal by making three claims: clusters of newsracks are an eyesore; they’re a safety problem forcing people off congested sidewalks and into roadways; there’s already a widely-ignored City Code provision requiring permits for newsracks.

Two days after Hertzberg’s announcement, Pittsburgh’s newspapers were hit again. The city’s General Services Director Guy Costa wrote a letter to newspapers mandating that all newsracks be removed from the City-County Building by Sept. 11. Costa said the move was part of an ongoing beautification project to clean-up the lobby and outside sidewalks of the building that serves as the city’s and Allegheny County’s municipal and judicial headquarters.

Fortunately, for Steel City newspapers — especially AAN members In Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh City Paper, which rely so heavily on newsrack distribution — neither Hertzberg’s nor Costa’s plans have materialized.

The City Council has yet to see a draft of Hertzberg’s bill and Costa — after sitting down on Sept. 10 with newspaper attorneys and publishers, including City Paper’s Brad Witherell and In Pittsburgh’s Nicholas Riggio — decided to rescind the deadline and defer the entire newsrack issue to a future meeting that includes Hertzberg and Public Works officials.

Hertzberg could not be reached for comment.

So what comes next?

There’s been talk of enforcing the existing permit law, tidying-up certain problem areas, pilot programs testing cluster boxes. But no one knows what the city’s street corners will resemble in a year.

One thing is certain: The hulking, generic multi-paper racks being tested in Chicago and San Francisco are the last thing that Pittsburgh’s newsweeklies want.

“Having cluster boxes is a compromise I would have a problem with,” says In Pittsburgh publisher Riggio. “Right now, our strategy is talk with officials, find out what the problems are and resolve things without the courts or new laws.”

City Paper’s Witherell also says the path of least resistance for everyone is to communicate and use the existing ordinance.

“If we need to go over the areas [where newsracks are] and correct the problems one at a time, that’s fine,” he says. “If we need to voluntarily comply with the permit for safety issues, that’s fine. But we don’t want the cluster boxes.”

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